Our readers are invited this month to take a guided tour through my personal herbal medicine cabinet. Of course, in my official role as President of the Herb Resource Tradition, I make no recommendations for or against self-diagnosis or self-medication with herbal remedies. However, after 20 years of reading research on the benefits and safety of herbs for health, I keep these around for my personal use.
GENERAL HEALTH MAINTENANCE AND IMPROVEMENT
These always wind up at the front of the herbal medicine cabinet because they are among the products I take every day, or at least frequently, for their health protective benefits. Herbally-aware readers will recognize many of these antioxidants, some with more or less specific antioxidant actions. All are in keeping with my personal longevity strategy, which is quite simple:
Predict the most likely causes of an early demise
Reduce the risk of those conditions
Throughout most of the industrialized world, our most common natural causes of death are heart disease and liver disease. So, my herbal strategy involves finding and using remedies which reduce the risk of those diseases.
PROTECTING THE HEART
A fairly large number of herbs and common foods have been shown to reduce fat levels in our blood. It makes sense that if there is less cholesterol floating around, less will be deposited in the arteries. The best-researched herbal remedies for reducing blood fat levels and for other cardiovascular benefits include garlic, Siberian ginseng, reishi mushroom and the Ayurvedic remedy called guggul (commiphora mukul), which is a relative of myrrh.
The research on garlic as an antidote to a high-fat diet is especially impressive. Of course, we should all modify our diets to reduce fat intake and to increase fiber, which further reduces cholesterol levels and has other wonderful benefits as well. Research carried out at least 20 years ago in India showed that garlic, taken with a high fat meal, could prevent the rise in blood cholesterol expected after the meal. The research in question [Sharma, K.K. Indian Journal of Nutrition and Diuretics, 1976] involved consuming 100 grams of butter, nearly a full stick, with or without a little essential oil of garlic. Those taking the placebo experienced a predictable and extreme increase in their blood cholesterol levels (for which I am sure the researchers were profoundly apologetic). Surprisingly, those who consumed the garlic with their butter actually showed decreases in their blood cholesterol levels below their normal values. I think of that research every time I find myself consuming a richer-than-prudent meal. More recent studies have also confirmed the cardiovascular benefits of garlic and other very substantial benefits as well, all of which keeps garlic very high on my daily-use list.
Ginseng also has documented benefits in protecting the heart, as does Siberian ginseng. Added to scientific research from recent years is the ancient reputation of ginseng as a longevity herb, and this combination of science and history always increases my confidence. Guggul is a more recent addition to American herbal offerings, yet is an ancient remedy in India and has achieved an impressive reputation in Europe and Asia as an approved medicine for cardiovascular protection. Reishi mushroom, or gonoderma lucidum, has also been long revered in Chinese medicine as a longevity herb and has documented benefits for the heart. Other herbs that should be mentioned here are evening primrose oil and black currant seed oil. These herbs are sources of gamma linoleic acid (GLA), which also lowers blood fat levels.
Respiratory disease is high on the list of natural causes of death because older people, if they do not succumb to heart disease or cancer, frequently get colds or flu which develop into pneumonia. This “dying of old age” is frequently a euphemism for respiratory disease. However, respiratory disease, especially flu, can be quite dangerous in its own right; and as with other infectious diseases, early treatment can shorten the duration of the illness. Many people have experienced the remarkable ability of echinacea to hinder the development of colds and flu, and its effects against bronchitis in children and against other infections, including recurrent urinary tract infections. Astragalus, too, has been shown to decrease the duration and frequency of colds.
For fighting liver damage, whether from toxins in the work place, environmental pollution, or even the self-inflicted damage of alcohol or drug use (many prescription and over-the-counter drugs are hard on the liver), nothing is as well researched as milk thistle extract. The high-tech, concentrated extract of the milk thistle seed is used in clinics and emergency rooms in Europe to combat serious cases of liver poisoning. It is also used by millions of European consumers to protect their livers against toxins in the environment or the workplace. It is also used to treat cirrhosis and hepatitis, as well as for detoxification after alcohol or drug abuse.
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Several of the herbs I have already mentioned have shown intriguing benefits in improving performance, both mental and physical. These are: ginseng—long valued for its effects on stamina and endurance—Siberian ginseng, and astragalus. The latter is less widely known in this country, but it has undergone some of the same testing as ginseng for improving physical performance. Also in this category, I include ginkgo biloba. This herb increases the circulation and oxygenation of blood to the brain and improves and maintains memory and mental function. Ginkgo biloba also helps heart muscle to reduce heart attack risk, and it aids in proper ear and eye function.
Speaking of the eyes, bilberry extract is another microcirculatory stimulant, which appears to have unique benefits for the eyes, increasing energy production and light/dark adaptation and helping to prevent night blindness, cataracts and glaucoma. Bilberry extract also has cardiovascular benefits, strengthens the capillaries and helps protect against ulcers.
THE QUICK FIX
Nearly every medicine cabinet contains remedies which are intended to provide fast, symptomatic relief from common ailments. In this category, I would include a headache and pain remedy–ibuprofen. I always take milk thistle with that, and I would certainly use milk thistle before taking acetaminophen (Tylenol) which has a very well-known documented liver toxicity. Some people find that willow bark is effective as an aspirin substitute, and this makes sense, since aspirin is a chemical designed to mimic a chemical in willow bark. If I had migraine headaches, I would try feverfew, which has been clinically proven effective in preventing migraine attacks. Also, if I had arthritis, I would use caspaicin cream, which is made from the hot element in cayenne pepper.
For gastrointestinal upset, especially that encountered while traveling, I keep goldenseal around, although barberry extract would probably work equally well in most cases. Both of these herbs contain a powerful antiseptic ingredient called berberine, and because of it I do not consider them appropriate for long term use since it could wipe out the beneficial bacteria in the intestines. By the way, goldenseal in much smaller amounts makes an excellent bitter for stimulating appetite and digestion. It is also popular for sore throat. For simple digestive upset, I reach for a strong ginger extract, and were I prone to motion sickness or morning sickness, I would consider this the remedy of choice. Ginger is also one of my favorite cough remedies for relieving bronchial congestion.
The most popular sleep aid in Germany and most of Europe is valerian. Valerian root has been used to settle the nerves for centuries and is now an approved sedative product in many modern nations. Germany alone has over 150 valerian products available in pharmacies. Clinical research shows that most people using valerian fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly. Valerian products are available in capsule, tablet or liquid extract form. Hops extract is my personal favorite; and though it is less rigorously researched than valerian, it also has an ancient reputation and some scientific validation for its calming properties.
For preventing bruises and for sprains and strains I always keep arnica extract around. This, of course, is for external use only. I have always been amazed at the way arnica can soothe a forming bruise if it is applied quickly after the bruise-causing accident. For burns, including sunburn, the remedy of choice is aloe vera. I keep a live aloe plant around but also have liquid preparations for use when I am traveling. Goldenseal or tea tree oil are both antiseptics and echinacea is both an anti-inflammatory agent and contains a substance which speeds healing. It inhibits an enzyme which breaks down connective tissue. Chamomile is an anti-inflammatory agent as well as an excellent skin and hair herb.
Every good medicine cabinet should contain remedies to alleviate the symptoms of simple everyday health problems, and should include some first aid supplies for dealing with minor injuries. My herbal medicine chest contains these and something in which I strongly believe: preventative medicines for daily use to improve my overall health and my prospects for longevity. As you might imagine, my collection herbs, tinctures, extracts, and other herbal products include many items not herein. But then, many are seldom if ever used because the need for them has rarely arisen. Those listed here I consider the essentials and among the best-documented and most personally useful.
The Herb Research Foundation has over 100,000 articles about herbs and has prepared brief, readable summaries on many herbs and conditions. Membership to the Foundation is open to all who are interested in herbs. Our members have enhanced access to accurate, non-commercial information about herbs, while supporting a variety of projects to help increase responsible use, research, education, access and protection of herbs for health.
Reprinted with permission from The Energy Times, September/October 1994.